Above and Beyond the Doll of Cutey
True story. In the fall of 1996, my parents and I drove down to Nashville from Queens, NY to visit Belmont University. As a senior in high school, I already knew I wanted to work in the country music industry, and Music City was my Mecca. Multi-tasking teenager that I was, I had set two additional goals to achieve while in town: see a performance of the Grand Ole Opry, and get my hands on a copy of Pam Tillis’ long out-of-print pop album, Above and Beyond the Doll of Cutey. I’m proud to say I accomplished both goals our first night in town, before I ever set foot on the campus of my alma mater.
I found a cut-out cassette of Cutey at Ernest Tubb’s Record Shop on Broadway, the very street immortalized in the film Coal Miner’s Daughter and lovingly celebrated in Pam’s upcoming single, “Band in the Window.” Six bucks and change later, I’m listening to it on my walkman on the way back to the Fiddler’s Inn Hotel. My reaction? Horror at first, which gradually faded into bemusement. What was this faux New Wave train wreck I was listening to, and why was my favorite country artist performing it?
First impressions matter far less than last, of course, and thanks to a wonderful friend in college who transferred the cassette to CD for me, I’ve been able to revisit the album often over the past few years, while perusing the lyrics from the vinyl copy I purchased and had Pam sign in Connecticut a couple years back. Compared to her country work, Cutey may be a disappointment, but as the debut album of a young songwriter looking for her place on the music scene, there are some pretty good moments worth the time of her followers.
One of the cool things about Cutey is that it features more of Pam’s songwriting than any of the ten studio albums she’s released. She’s a co-writer on nine of the ten tracks. Some of her fellow writers include Mary Ann Kennedy, Pat Bunch and Pam Rose, who would go on to write many country hits, and Callie Khouri, who would win an Oscar for her screenplay Thelma & Louise.
The songwriting is solid, and she turns in some good vocal performances here and there, but she clearly hasn’t found her own style yet. I think part of the problem is that she’s too smart for the scene she’s trying to fit into. Sure, she plays the Debbie Harry/Cyndi Lauper role on the album cover and the music video for the first single, “Killer Comfort”, but she’s already aware that the style is calculated and inauthentic, and is able to predict the inevitable result of being strange for the sake of being strange. Witness the lyrics to “(You Just Want To Be) Weird”:
You’re so concerned with being cool
You’re so concerned with being hip
And every move is for effect
But just how strange can you get?
Tillis also pens a song that she should revisit, or at least pitch to other artists, since it’s more relevant now than it was back in 1983. “Popular Girl” perfectly captures the phenomenon of the young teenage girl who can be elevated to near-demigod status for wearing the right clothes and having a great body, but ends up losing her identity in the process. It’s a scene being played out in countless middle schools across the country, that moment where a girl realizes she can receive far more attention if she chooses to be defined by her body rather than her mind:
She’s a big girl now, she’s in the eighth grade
Walking down the hall, she’s always on parade
She’s a popular girl, she’s a popular girl
She’s this year’s darling, she doesn’t know
She’s just another falling star
So on it goes for a popular girl
Great song with an important message, but you’d never know it by the rapid-fire performance that tries so hard to be punk. And that’s the ultimate failing of this album. Pam Tillis, even in her early days, is a smart songwriter with cutting insights on the human experience. To try and make her a carefree New Wave pop star is to undermine what makes her special in the first place. There are some very good songs on Above and Beyond the Doll of Cutey – the songs above, plus “Killer Comfort”, “Make It Feel Better”, “Wish I Was In Love Tonight” and “It Ain’t Easy Bein’ Easy” – but what should have been a country album on par with Rosanne Cash’s work of that time is an awkward pop album instead, sung by a woman who has already too intelligent and deep-thinking for the audience she’s pursuing. I recommend hearing it because it’s the genesis of one of country music’s best artists, but proceed with the understanding that her talents have yet to be understood by the people around her.
Track Listing: Killer Comfort/Love is Sneakin’ Up on You/Make it Feel Better/Wish I Was in Love Tonight/You Don’t Miss/Never Be the Same/(You Just Want to Be) Weird/Popular Girl/It Ain’t Easy Bein’ Easy/Let’s Get Crazy